Recently I pointed out one strange aspect of the prudification of the culture over the past 20 years -- that drunkenness seems to have become a goal in itself, not as a pleasantly buzzed gateway toward further fun activities. Another part of this shift may be that young people have become incredibly more self-conscious over that time, even around their friends at the increasingly dominant small parties. They therefore require a stronger dose of booze to loosen themselves up and at least attempt to mingle.
I think this is where the false perception of greater binge drinking comes from. The CDC's nationally representative Youth Risk Behavior Survey asks high schoolers if they've had 5 or more drinks within a couple hours, during the past 30 days. In the mid-1990s, 33% had, yet by 2011 only 22% had. This pattern over time is not unique to hardcore drinking: it shows up for casual drinking as well (having had at least one drink in the past 30 days).
But you have to actually have some kind of life to be out in a situation where binge drinking is going on in the first place. Perhaps lower rates of binge drinking simply tell us that, as we know from so many other sources, young people today have no life and lock themselves indoors all day, either playing video games or farting around on the internet, where no kegs can tempt them. We would have to compare rates of binge drinking to rates of going out to parties in order to determine how likely they are to binge drink, assuming they're already out at a party. For all we know, binge drinking could be more likely to occur at parties.
Fortunately the YRBS does ask a question about drinking alcohol in a specific social context, namely before having sex. Technically it asks if you used alcohol or drugs before your last intercourse, but alcohol is overwhelmingly what it would have been. Marijuana usage is far lower, and hard drugs like cocaine minimal. And for high schoolers, the scene leading up to getting it on is more likely to have been a party where they were drinking, not vegging out and watching horror movies while getting baked, then satisfying the munchies before falling asleep.
The graph below shows the rates of binge drinking and of having used alcohol (or drugs) before having sex the last time.
The blue line shows the decline mentioned above. However, the red line shows no substantial change in drinking before having sex, although at least it's down from the early 2000s. But given how much drinking has declined in the broader context, you'd think it would've fallen also in the specific case of before sex.
To see how much more likely it has become to drink before sex, relative to drinking overall, look at the ratio of drinking-before-sex compared to some baseline like binge drinking (it works the same if casual drinking is used as the baseline). You could also take the difference in rates, or the difference relative to the baseline; they all show the same thing. But a ratio is simpler to understand.
In the early 1990s, the before-sex rate was about 70% of the binge-drinking rate; by 2011 it has risen to over 100%, meaning that high schoolers today are more likely to drink before sex than to binge drink. I can't help but notice the brief halt-and-reversal of this trend during the mid-2000s euphoria. For those few years, the entire culture took tiny steps back toward the rising-crime culture of the 1980s, probably in response to 9/11. But by now we're well back on the path set out in the early-mid '90s.
To reiterate, the major change is not so much in their overt behavior (drinking before sex), but in their underlying psychology -- their mindset, tastes, and inclinations -- and how the behavior functions in their broader lives. Before, maybe they just happened to be drinking at a party before pairing off -- the two were more independent. Now, they're more closely linked, as shown by young people's higher preference for drinking before sex, relative to their overall inclination to getting drunk.
So we shouldn't be fooled by the lower rates of drinking among young people -- it probably means that they just don't go out as much as they used to. Relative to their overall alcohol consumption, they're much more likely than before to consume it before having sex. That's one more sign of how paralyzingly self-conscious they've become, where getting blasted is required in order to open up in bed. Not healthy. Blaming others for their problems has also become more widespread -- anything to protect their precious self-esteem -- so they need a reputational insurance policy like dismissing responsibility with, "Dude, I got so drunk last night, I don't remember anything..."
And then there are the emotional functions. Now that they're more avoidant, they'd like for an act that threatens them with potential intimacy to be as forgettable as possible, for it to leave no emotional trace -- well then, why not make sure you black out while it's happening? They also fear getting emotionally excited, so they choose to get drunk in order to be in more of a daze than in a vivid state of arousal. They just fumble through some bad sex (Whiskey dick for the guy, perhaps something similar for the girl), without feeling like they're being lifted out of their ordinary selves.
It's too bad we don't have data going back before the '90s. You certainly don't see this kind of thing in the teen movies of the '80s, whether Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Weird Science, Heathers, Teen Wolf, or whatever else. To judge from Fitzgerald's stories of the Jazz Age, that period too seemed like young people wanted to have a few drinks just to loosen up, but that they wanted to be lucid enough to remember what great fun they were about to have. Getting tanked before petting or getting it on doesn't show up, as far as I remember.
I wonder about the mid-century, another period incredibly similar to our own in attitude. Re-reading this excerpt from Time's original article on the Silent Generation, it does sound like these young people had gotten pretty blotto during their otherwise innocuous small party. Maybe their panic about juvenile delinquency, and similar anxieties of the time, were like ours today -- that young people may not have been behaving as wildly as before, but that they were acting out too much in what should have been easy-going and fun-loving situations, like having a small get-together or going for a roll in the hay.
In any event, this case study shows the value of looking at more specific contexts that some behavior occurs in, if there are good hints and data at the finer-grained level. Even an apparent exception to the prudification of society -- no real change in one type of drinking -- turns out to adhere to the larger pattern, where young people are so self-conscious and emotionally avoidant that they'll give booze a second chance, provided it'll help them get through their awkward sex lives.